A dream sparked by Top Gun

China Daily (USA) - - CHINA -

Like many avi­a­tion fans, I love Top Gun, the leg­endary 1986 ac­tion movie that starred TomCruise and the F-14 Tom­cat fighter jet. The movie im­planted the idea in me that be­ing a fighter pi­lot on an air­craft car­rier is one of the coolest and riski­est jobs in the world.

Im­pressed by the film, I started learning about air­craft car­ri­ers. I wished that my coun­try could have at least one such ship and that pi­lots of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Navy could fly ad­vanced planes to pa­trol the oceans.

How­ever, when I first watched the movie, about 16 years ago, the PLA Navy only had a fews­mall, an­ti­quated destroyers and frigates and decades-old sub­marines. Hav­ing an air­craft car­rier and a car­rier strike group seemed like a pipedream.

Time flies. The pass­ing years have wit­nessedmy trans­forma­tion from stu­dent to a mil­i­tary news re­porter and I’ve writ­ten many sto­ries about the rapid devel­op­ment of the Chi­nese mil­i­tary. Iwatched as the na­tion’s first air­craft car­rier, the CNS Liaon­ing, en­tered ser­vice in 2012, and when it con­ducted a strike group drill in the South China Sea a year later.

I have vis­ited the car­rier four times and spo­ken with many of those who serve on her, from the cap­tain to the low­est-ranked sailors. I spentmy 32nd birth­day ac­com­pa­ny­ing the ves­sel’s deputy com­man­der on his daily tour of in­spec­tion when the car­rier was tak­ing part in a multi-ves­sel ex­er­cise in the South China Sea.

I think it’s fair to say I know the ship bet­ter than most Chi­nese peo­ple. How­ever, I had never had the op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­viewa J-15 pi­lot un­til last month, when I was one of a small group of Chi­nese re­porters in­vited to the Navy’s car­rier­based avi­a­tion unit to cover Zhang Chao’s death.

The pi­lots I spoke with looked sad be­cause their brother of­fi­cer had died in the course of duty, but they did not seem de­pressed.

“We all know there are risks be­hind what we do, but we don’t think about them too much,” Cap­tain Sun Baosong, deputy com­man­der of the J-15 squadron, told me. Sun trained with Zhang at the car­rier-based avi­a­tion unit.

“What we need to do now is to per­form our du­ties well — that’s what I be­lieve Zhang would want us to do,” the se­nior pi­lot said.

Lieu­tenant YuanWei, who also trained with Zhang, said se­nior of­fi­cers in­clud­ing Dai Ming­meng, the unit’s com­man­der, took the lead and flewJ-15s af­ter the ac­ci­dent to in­spire the other pi­lots. “We trust our lead­ers,” he said.

The stronger you want to be, the more risks you have to han­dle. This has never been truer than for to­day’s Chi­nese Navy. I don’t think this will be the last ob­sta­cle theNavy will have to over­come be­fore it builds a strong air­craft car­rier force, but I do be­lieve that it won’t be long be­fore China’sNavy pi­lots are pa­trolling the oceans.

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